Senate will help reshape USOC

Politicians say infighting is overshadowing athletes

January 29, 2003|By Alan Abrahamson | Alan Abrahamson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Prompted by the U.S. Olympic Committee's leadership crisis, an influential U.S. Senate panel made it plain yesterday that Congress intends to take a far more direct role in overseeing USOC operations with the aim of fixing a structure and culture that panel members said too often diverts attention from athletes.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, said that Congress, which in 1978 gave the USOC authority in this country for Olympic sports, has - if belatedly - recognized that the USOC in recent years has become a "big-money organization," and that a 25-year-old model may no longer suit the interests of U.S. athletes, sponsors and other Olympic stakeholders.

McCain said he intends to call another hearing within the month to "look beyond the organization's current leadership woes." Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican and a 1964 U.S. Olympian in judo, said the next hearing could come as soon as two weeks. And Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and architect of the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, pointedly warned USOC officials summoned yesterday to Washington: "The USOC is chartered by Congress, and Congress has the power to revoke that charter."

The remarks came amid a three-hour hearing punctuated by invective and rancorous exchanges and at least a dozen uses of the word "dysfunctional" and left the USOC's direction, near and long term, marked with uncertainties. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, in his first public comments on what he called "recent developments" involving the USOC, yesterday called the matter "worrying."

The hearing was called in the aftermath of an ethics inquiry into USOC chief executive Lloyd Ward that has since prompted the resignations of five USOC officials, a demand for President Marty Mankamyer's resignation, a call by a top Olympic sponsor for a full audit of the USOC's books - and induced institutional paralysis within the USOC's top leadership, with the management tumult superseding virtually all other meaningful activity for the past several weeks, and no clear end in sight.

"A very, very unpleasant situation," McCain said.

"Scandal seems to follow the United States Olympic Committee like dogs follow a meat wagon," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, calling for "top-to-bottom restructuring."

Campbell said the "whole sordid mess," which he also called an "Olympic-sized food fight," has left the Olympic motto - citius, altius, fortius (faster, higher, stronger) - in danger of being subverted, changed to "citius, altius, fortius and devious." Though he had long resisted congressional oversight, he said "a little more governmental oversight may not be a bad idea."

Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, urged the USOC to follow up, and soon, on a proposal to appoint a special independent panel to review all the circumstances of the ethics inquiry into Ward's conduct, and the aftermath.

The ethics inquiry was sparked by Ward's move last year to direct USOC staff to make introductions in the Dominican Republic, site of the 2003 Pan American Games, on behalf of a Detroit company, Energy Management Technologies, with ties to his brother and a friend.

A USOC ethics board found that Ward had committed two violations of the USOC ethics code, including the creation of the "appearance of a conflict of interest," but its report did not recommend any disciplinary action, and on Jan. 13 the executive committee took none.

An "error in judgment," Ward called it again yesterday.

At the same time, he also said, "I wasn't as clear then as I am now that the USOC culture is one of `I gotcha,' " adding that "at no point" did anyone within the USOC advise him he might be in ethical peril.

Patrick Rodgers, the USOC's former ethics officer, one of the five who has resigned since Jan. 13, testified that "in the ethics business, individuals who violate ethical standards historically blame everybody else. I think this is an absolute classic case of `it's everybody else's fault, not Mr. Ward's.' "

Ward and Rodgers engaged in a number of exchanges yesterday, with Ward saying at one point that Rodgers was spreading "half-truths, misrepresentations [and] innuendoes," and engaging in a "personal vendetta."

Alan Abrahamson is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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